March 04, 2013

New Yorker "The Tragedy of Aaron Swartz" - case strategy info comment

I haven't written a long "personal" Aaron Swartz post. It's not my skill. I knew him and liked him, and was greatly saddened by his death. I recently had occasion to look back at some activism discussions I'd had with him. It was, well, I shouldn't use the word "depressing" - let's say "dishearteningly melancholic". But others were much closer to him than I was. After all the articles that have been written, I'm inclined to think that everything worth saying along such lines is now being said by better writers.

I'm just going to comment here about one nugget about the legal case to be found in the contemplative article "The Tragedy of Aaron Swartz":

Second, while he had previously tried to keep the case quiet, in order to give M.I.T. a chance to reverse its stance without embarrassment, now he and others recognized that this strategy had failed. Their new strategy entailed hiring a P.R. firm to stir up public outrage before the trial.

I'd long wondered why there hadn't been much publicity about the case. For a long time, it seemed like I was one of very few people blogging about the case. The absence of an intense PR campaign was extremely odd considering how many high-attention allies he had (note I didn't use the word "friends" there - in politics, it's "allies" that's needed, and don't confuse the two), plus all the "markers" from his work with literal political campaigns. There wasn't even a website giving his side of the story, a fact which was extremely puzzling to me. Looks like indeed, that relative quietness was a deliberate decision by people in charge.

It's a continuing mystery to me, in terms of my failure at policy interactions, how one reads what I call "The Memo" about what one should do. That is, nobody posts a literal memo like:

To: All net.activists
Subject: Swartz strategy
Everyone - we're trying to do a plea deal. No "FREE AARON!" flaming, please. If that deal falls through, we'll get in touch, and then it'll be time to start messaging "He's being persecuted for checking out too many library books". But not right now, thanks folks.

But sometimes that might as well be what happens, from the outside. For example, in the "Net Neutrality" fight (a dispute between Google, etc. and telecommunications companies over costs), a Memo essentially got sent around to the Google, etc side that a big talking point was ISPS-ARE-*CENSORS*. And it was mind-boggling to behold.

Anyway, I should make clear this isn't a criticism the low publicity strategic decision. He had first-class, top-flight lawyers throughout the case. I'm not going to second guess them at their job in this situation.

My point is that, regardless of the merits of the cause, "public outrage" often does have a "P.R. firm" behind it. Even for causes dear to the grassroots, like Aaron Swartz. This is a rare example where that was demonstrated in the negative (no PR firm, no outrage).

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in activism | on March 04, 2013 02:01 PM (Infothought permalink)
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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I don't think Aaron needed a PR firm. If he had asked five or 10 friends with large online followings to talk about the case, it would have spread around the net quickly.

I didn't realize until after he died that his friends were staying silent because he -- and probably others in his circle -- wanted it that way.

I still wish I had blogged about it myself, as I'd planned to do last year.

Posted by: Rogers Cadenhead at March 4, 2013 07:04 PM

Rogers, if he asks his A-lister friends, I'd say that he's effectively acting as his own PR firm. That is, he himself has the social capital that most people would need to hire a PR firm to get. Sort of like a lawyer representing him/her self where most people would need to hire a lawyer. But there's still no meaningful "public outrage" without those A-listers.

I know it's a point I've made often in general. But the inverse example of it here is interesting. As well as it being fairly clearly stated by the people involved.

Note I suspect "others" is a press background way of saying "his lawyers".

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at March 4, 2013 07:35 PM